Frederick Douglass: The Meaning of July Fourth

On this Independence day it is well to remember yet again a probing and candid speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” given by the formerly enslaved and probably greatest 19th century American, Frederick Douglass, at Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, at the peak of North America slavery (indeed, about 230 years into that era).

 

Frederick_Douglass_c1860s

In this era Black Americans were usually not allowed at 4th of July celebrations in the slaveholding South, apparently because many slaveholders feared that they might get an idea of freedom from such events (as if they did not already have such an idea!). Also, Black residents were often discouraged from attending such festivities in the North.

It is in this very dangerous and hostile national racial climate that the great Douglass–increasingly, a leading intellectual of his day and the first Black American to receive a roll-call vote for US President (later on, at the 1888 Republican national convention!)–was asked by leading citizens of Rochester to give an address at their Fourth of July celebrations. He gave them this stinging indictment of racial oppression:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

But later adds:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Take the American slave-trade, which we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave-trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words from the high places of the nation as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the Jaws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish them selves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon all those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass with out condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

And then concludes with this:

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,

And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign.
To man his plundered rights again
Restore.

Sadly, our system of racial oppression still persists, even as most white Americans are in denial about its deep and foundational reality. Yet, there remain many people like Frederick Douglass today who still fight to remove this “yoke of tyranny” from us all. May they flourish and prosper. We should remember those now and from the past who fought racism most on this day to celebrate freedom.
Some forty-two years later, in the last speech (“Lessons of the Hour”) he gave before his death—at an AME Church in DC, on January 9th, 1894—Douglass made these comments as he watched southern and border states hurtle toward bloody Jim Crow segregation, the new neo-slavery system:

We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South. It is commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds and beasts, such as buzzards, vultures and hyenas, will gloat over and prey dead bodies, but the Southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing and burning when their victims are dead. I repeat, and my contention is, that this “Negro problem” formula lays the fault at the door of the Negro, and removes it from the door of the white man, shields the guilty, and blames the innocent. Makes the Negro responsible and not the nation….. Now the real problem is, and ought to be regarded by the American people, a great national problem. It involves the question, whether, after all, with our Declaration of Independence, with our glorious free constitution, whether with our sublime Christianity, there is enough of national virtue in this great nation to solve this problem, in accordance with wisdom and justice.

He concluded thus, his very last words ever spoken in public:

But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world. Its voice then, was as the tramp of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time honored tyranny, to judgment. Crowned heads heard it and shrieked. Toiling millions heard it and clapped their hands for joy. It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages. Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of compliant or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.

 

Race and the Ghost of Jim Crow

According to political conservatives, racial discrimination is no longer an institutional issue, and there is no longer any need for policies that provide socioeconomic protections for Blacks. Political conservatives also say that if any racial discrimination is happening, it is being committed by only a few bigoted individuals. These individuals, they say, have been socialized to hold such bigoted notions and believe that Blacks are lazy and inferior and that it is okay to commit racist acts against them.

The Donald Sterlings and Robert Copelands of the United States have been undoubtedly shaped by a racist culture. The U.S. government sanctioned discrimination and gave Whites permission to denigrate Blacks openly. But these sorts of people don’t hold those beliefs anymore, right? After looking at demographics information, I’m not so sure. Consider this: according to the U.S. Census taken in 2010, there were more than 23 million Whites over the age of 70 in America. By contrast, there were slightly more than 39 million Blacks in all age brackets. Why is this significant? Because the number of Whites 70 years and older equals more than half of the total Black population, who are potentially voting on or in some way influencing policies that affect all Blacks. Whites born in the early 1960s (those over age 50) would have also been socialized and participated in the practice of Jim Crow Racism. They number more than 56 million.

Let’s remind ourselves what was going on when these older Whites were young. Whites currently over the age of 50 engaged in race relations in the context of Jim Crow. Until the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Jim Crow continued legally and unrestricted. Brown v. Board of Education was aimed at the integration of public schools in the South, but it had broader implications as well, which included the end of Jim Crow laws. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Jim Crow became a federal offense. This, of course, did not end racism. Despite being “illegal,” Jim Crow discrimination continued unofficially in small towns up until the 1990s.

If this lingering Jim Crow representation does not bother you enough, remember that these 80 million plus individuals had families, friends, and children. The racism of their social milieu became ingrained in their minds, and from them it spread passively and actively to their children and families: passively by imitation, actively by subtle, deliberate instruction. The end of legal, public discrimination has not prevented private discrimination from flourishing beneath the surface and continuing to have an effect on public policy, albeit in a subtler, more insidious way.

In light of this, it is evident that racism has strong institutional support. More than 80 million people in the United States were taught early on that it is okay to discriminate. Not only was it okay, but it is normal and expected. I don’t mean that every White person born during the era of legal racial discrimination is automatically a racist bigot. There have always been Whites who recognized the injustice of discrimination from the start. But if these Whites are of the same ilk as Donald Sterling and Robert Copeland, socialized during the 1920s through the mid-1960s when it was legally permissible in the United States to commit racial discrimination, then I have to raise a point against the political conservatives: More than 80 million people is certainly not “a few bigoted individuals.”

This institutional support aside, we cannot ignore the ugly fact that people can be racist, even violently racist, without this socialization. Dylann Roof, the White who wanted to start a “race war” by shooting nine Blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, was 21 years old. Not only that, but in a document reported to be his manifesto, he writes, “I was not raised in a racist home or environment.” Instead, he writes, he got his ideas from books. Contrary to how Roof is presented by various media outlets, he was not mentally disturbed or psychologically unstable. He was just plain racist. And Roof is surely not the only racist in America. Racial discrimination is therefore not just an artifact of Jim Crow socialization; it is a persistent cultural phenomenon that can overtake people of any age and any family background.

It is certainly not legally permissible now to discriminate against Blacks without a bona fide occupational qualification as it was back then, and it is not socially acceptable now as it was then to openly disparage Blacks or otherwise discriminate against them. But this does not protect Blacks from the political power of the racist vote, and it does not shield them from a bullet fired from a racist gun. It does not ensure that children will learn in their classrooms to actively accept those who look differently from them and to judge them “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It does not ensure that Blacks will earn anything more than 64 cents on the dollar compared to Whites in similar professions. But it does ensure that privileged people will push aside racial issues as a thing of the past, what our President has called “dark chapters in our nation’s history,” embarrassing mistakes that we don’t—and shouldn’t—bring up anymore.

It should alarm us that a large group of privileged people who were socialized in a racist culture still hold significant representative power over Blacks. It should alarm us, and it should remind us that the abolition of Jim Crow is not a good enough reason to think that Black people in America can ease up on the struggle for freedom and equality. Blacks cannot passively accept the racist ideology according to which race “no longer matters.” Race does matter, and it will probably always matter, and Blacks need to lobby actively for policies that protect their socioeconomic interests against the real threat of racial discrimination.
What is lacking in numbers needs to be made up for in tenacity.

Lessie Branch is a Racial Policy Scholar whose research interests focus on race and class disparities in general and the discordance between Black racial attitudes and Black economic progress specifically. Lessie is on faculty at Monroe College in the School of Business and Accounting.

Jeb Bush: Latinos’ Candidate?

Jeb Bush finally announced his candidacy for President of the United States as a Republican. According to a reporter, Jeb portrays himself as

[A]n executive animated by big ideas and uniquely capable of carrying them out, pointing to his record in Florida of introducing a taxpayer-financed school voucher program, expanding charter schools, reducing the size of the state government by thousands of workers and cutting taxes by billions.

He also portrays himself as near-Latino.

One of Bush’s campaign major strategies is the pursuit of the Latino vote. It centers on Bush’s claim to Latinos that “I’m close to you, I understand you”: I speak your language, I embrace your culture and I know firsthand the immigrants’ experience. He says nothing about issues of importance to Latinos.

Bush’s repeatedly emphasizes his fluency in Spanish. He also asserts that Spanish is important in his family: He and his wife speak Spanish at home and their children are bilingual. OK Bush, it’s nice that Spanish is important to your family, but how does that help Latinos? Does that mean that you’ll champion immigration justice or accessible health care for poor Latinos? If not, which is certainly the case, your Spanish is just for show.

Bush also proclaims a deep attachment to Mexico:

Here in the U.S., Cinco de Mayo has become a day where we celebrate our ties with Mexico and the great contributions of the Mexican-American community in the U.S. In my case, this relationship is very profound. My wife Columba was born in Mexico, my family has always had strong ties with Mexico and I have great respect and affection for our neighboring country.

What Mexico are you talking about, Jeb? The Mexico of Mexican elites? I doubt that you are speaking of the large number of people that would need your help the most: the undocumented poor who experience exploitation in their jobs and racial profiling on the streets.

His last affirmation is completely absurd:

I know the power of the immigrant experience because I live it each and every day. I know the immigrant experience because I married a beautiful girl from Mexico.

Come on, Jeb: Are you serious? What immigrant experience are you talking about? Your wife married a wealthy white aristocrat whose family includes two former Presidents of the United States. Your wife’s experiences have nothing in common with the mass of Latin American immigrants. She has almost certainly not been racially profiled in public spaces or spent years in this country without papers afraid that after years of hard work she could be apprehended and deported.

Jeb touts portions of his biography that are vacuous and not substitutes for a clear statement about how he would address as President the needs of the mass of Mexican and other Latino immigrants or the large population of poor US born Latinos. Don’t expect Latinos to vote for you simply because you speak Spanish and your wife is a Mexican immigrant. Offer them concrete solutions to their problems.

Death in South Carolina: The Denial of Truths

Viewing the narrated event of Charleston within the dark and secure confines that surrounded me under a waxing crescent moon, created a nauseating pit within the center of my chest. As the news began to sift in, the sensation proceeded to raise the minuscule fine hairs upon the back of my petered-out neck. Knowing nothing in particular about the city, beyond the fact that it was not on my bucket list of places to visit, seeing the old and famous AME church and Charleston, South Carolina police lights splashed across my high-definition screen created a sense of confounding distress and sadness my soul had issue in articulating. Before the picture was put to color and detail, I knew, I secretly knew. It was not simply a lunatic, as pundits like to describe the distant “other.” It was not ISIS. It was not gang violence. It was not a disgruntled parishioner or jealous spouse looking to settle a scorned romantic score. It was an ancient, but at the same time, an in-vogue thriving hate of another kind!

It was hard for me to watch as I rested that night, for my feelings were precipitously pointing to a racially motivated depiction of white violence. The next morning the world discovered what I assuredly suspected the night before. The following days after the shooting were filled with sights of racially mixed church audiences (normally segregated and unwilling to discuss this fact at the moment) in places of worship holding hands and singing the Lords prayers. Sights of communal prayer, shared tears, and hardened faces were captured through the lenses of still photography and video apparatuses from sources such as the New York Times and Fox News. Flowers and other symbols of sympathy are, for the time being, placed at the doorsteps of the church as well. Mourning and celebration of life were mentioned heavily by an array of people put on display by the media.

On the other hand, as the week progressed, not only were further details of the shooting available to the public, but also an assortment of rhetorical misdirections wrapped in hypocrisy began to seep throughout the landscape of America. At times, the verbal stench was hard to bear. As I watched and listened throughout the week, the rage overtook the initial distress and sadness in my heart. The muddied mix of liberal and conservative news organizations and pandering politicians brought to a boil an elixir of emotional and intellectual pain that created one overwhelming conclusion in my mind: The truth about race in America is once again seen as a narrative we choose to avert with due diligence. The all too familiar decaffeinated approach to racialized topics of importance was upon the lips of many. This included many within the media and their invited succubi whose ultimate job was to underwrite their hosts’ initial political perspectives. Oddly enough, perspectives such as Dr. Ben Carson, Republican presidential hopeful, were as rare as recent sightings of unicorns. Further, he stated:

Let’s call this sickness what it is, so we can get on with the healing. If this were a medical disease, and all the doctors recognized the symptoms but refused to make the diagnosis for fear of offending the patient, we could call it madness. But there are people who are claiming that they can lead this country who dare not call this tragedy an act of racism, a hate crime, for fear of offending a particular segment of the electorate.

His GOP political rivals decided to follow another path. In essence, they discussed the matter utilizing a more conservative-staunched narrative. Instead of observing the shooting through a racialized lens, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee both described the attack as an assault on religion’s liberties. In order to move the focus from the presence and current effect of a country built on systematic and racialized oppression, Bill O’ Riley, used the art of political and social deflection by interviewing the likes of David Clarke, Milwaukee County Sherriff. This tactic focused on illustrating that Blacks are not in danger from Whites, but from other Black elements within their own communities. Mr. Clarke states:

As a Black American, I do not live in fear in the United States…a persons fear has to be based on rationalization. I face more danger and I feel more danger putting my uniform everyday and going in the American ghetto to police.

When O’Riley asked if Clarke “had come across white supremacy in Milwaukee,” and if white supremacy, as stated by some in the media, was a legitimate rationale for the underlying cause of the shooting in South Carolina. Clarke argued:

[Clarke laughs]…that is high hyperbole and demagoguery…[those who used this argument] want to keep the animosity stoked up, this division between people. But I got over that a long time ago.

Fox “News” also used Bishop E. W. Jackson, of Virginia. He argued,

Most people jump to conclusions about race…I long for the day when we stop doing that in our country…He didn’t chose a bar. He didn’t choose a basketball court. He chose a church. And we need to be looking at that very closely.

In connection with divergent tactics to avoid in-depth conversations about white racism, many in the media and political candidates have exceptionally targeted the conveyance of forgiveness by the victims’ families and other Blacks within the community. To me, their actions are astounding and wonderful. But their actions have also served as a two-edged sword that has lead many (white) politicians to use it as a focal point while avoiding the hard questions about racism in this country.

Even though the killer at the time had yet to be captured, the clues leading one to conclude the shooting was racially motivated were quite clear. But people such as Governor Nikki Haley missed the crumbs of evidence due to their fear of alienating the right-winged conservative base of their political party. This was evident within Governor Haley’s outré tweet Wednesday night. She wrote:

While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another. Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers.

While flaunting their sympathy, others such as GOP presidential candidates and heads of government expectedly and typically avoided the topic of race and gun legislation. For example, Rand Paul spoke to a group of religious conservatives and said, “It’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.” In addition, Rick Santorum stated:

All you can do is pray for those and pray for our country. This is one of those situations where you just have to take a step back and say we — you know, you talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before…It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation

Baseless fearmongers such as Donald Trump even exposed their own narcissism and need for intense psychotherapy by making the death of nine innocent individuals about themselves.

The overall bobbing and weaving performed by these and others like Governor Nikki Haley, Ted Cruz to Marco Rubio were amazingly inept. It was not until more information confounding the initial clues (such as the obvious symbolizing of the pro-apartheid flags upon the jacket of the domestic terrorists or his connection to a white supremacist groups) that these same political pawns moved chaotically to the “left” during their performance of the cowboy bump on issues such as removal of the Rebel Dixie flag from South Carolina state property. Regardless, in terms of the flag being seen as a racist symbol in a state many feel shows its white oppressive teeth quite often in order to remind Blacks exactly where they are in terms of the hierarchies pertaining to power and humanity, Governor Nikki Haley once said,

What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.

After licking a finger and thusly putting it up in order to determine which way the political winds were blowing, she at that time did not call for the removal of the Dixie flag from state property. As long as it is politically convenient and creates no harm to your base, erring on the side of right is definitely seen as in fashion. Only later did she act.

Legislative initiatives to take down the flag down are simply the absolute least possible thing that can actually occur within the state of South Carolina. Is the creation of an authentic dialogue concerning white racism and current racial segregation within the country, and specifically in the state of South Carolina on the dockets for further analysis? No? Well surely the manner in which humanity was shown to the shooter of nine Blacks versus the behavior of law officers in the heinous shooting of Walter Scott will create healthy dialogue pertaining to racialized differential treatment of law enforcement? Are we at least going to recognize and discuss the fact that the Charleston County Magistrate, James B. Gosnell, who is overseeing the initial proceedings of the killer’s trial has said “nigger” in open court? No? Maybe deal with the fact that South Carolina is one of only five states that does not have hate crimes legislation? No? Are we as a nation going to at least change some of the names of the streets that represent pro-slavery historical Charleston characters or remove monuments of the likes of that celebrate historical individuals such as Dr. J. Marion Sims who is essentially in the same league, and hopefully burning in the same hell, as Josef Mengele? No? Oh well.

It is important to recognize that this city and this state were both built and flourished due to the huge slave trade that flourished in Charleston. By 1860, there were roughly 4 million Black slaves in the U.S. Importantly, ten percent of those slaves resided in chains and racial oppression in South Carolina. With a past such as this, in combination with our country’s avoidance of confronting a brutal history that continues to have power over the minds and actions of a great many non-Blacks regarding Black Americans, the rise of white hate groups and hate crimes, and ramifications of the racialized tongue-and-cheek political satire of members of the GOP, the Dixie flag is the least of South Carolina’s current and future worries.

In Delivering Eulogy for Charleston Shooting Victim, Obama Finds Grace

The funerals for the Charleston shooting victims – all nine of them: Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59, – continue with regularity, each one a painful reminder that the violence of white supremacy costs lives.

President Obama stepped to the podium and into this difficult moment in US history to eulogize Rev. Clementa Pinckney. And in delivering the eulogy for Rev. Pinckney, Obama found grace. If you haven’t watched the whole speech, you can here (37:58):

The transcript is available, but it’s a speech that is better viewed than read.

In his analysis of the speech, John Dickerson, writing at Slate, had this to say about the President’s theme of ‘grace':

This was not a rhetorical exercise, or not merely one. It was a demonstration of the power the president had found in the example of the people of Charleston—both the living and the dead. He wasn’t just telling. He was showing—the power he was trying to summon in this speech came from his own feeling of gratitude and obligation to serve as an example of grace. Even if you didn’t agree with any of what the president said, the distance the president traveled in this one week was a kind of testimony of its own. By the end of his oration, the president was leading the congregation in an impromptu rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

There was something incredibly powerful and moving in the choice of ‘grace’ as a theme to tie this speech together, and perhaps one of the elements that so resonated for me is the way that it reframed the talk about ‘forgiveness’ of the shooter. In his analysis at The Atlantic, James Fallows takes this up when he says:

It allowed him to recast one part of the shooting’s aftermath in the most glorious way. When the families of the nine murdered victims told the killer that they forgave him, one undertone of their saintliness was that we might be in for another “noble victim” episode. Black people would be killed or abused; they would prove their goodness by remaining calm; and in part because of their magnanimity, nothing would change.But by characterizing their reaction as a reflection of grace rather than mere “forgiveness,” Obama was able to present it as something much different than patient victimhood…”

Fallows has a long, section-by-section break down of the speech if you want to know more about the way the speech worked, which is interesting if you’re interested in how speeches work.

If you’re still just trying to come to terms with the awful events in Charleston, have a listen to President Obama’s speech and find some grace.

The Charleston Shooter Has Plenty of Company on the Internet

When I first heard there was a shooting in Charleston and that a white man was the main suspect in killing nine people in a historic black church, I knew, like too many of us, that this had everything to do with race. When I saw photos of him with a disaffected stare and wearing a jacket with patches of the flags of segregated Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, I knew immediately he was connected in some way to the white nationalist movement. And when I heard the statement he made about rape and take-over, I was pretty sure I knew where Roof had been spending time online.

The shooter, wearing white power symbols

The shooter, wearing white power symbols (New York Times)

I knew that the attack would be linked to a white nationalist because I have spent a significant amount of time monitoring Stormfront.org( using do not link URL), the main online hub of the white nationalist movement. As a white anti-racist, I began studying the website in 2004 as part of research for my master’s degree on the contemporary white supremacist movement. At the time, the site boasted over 30,000 views per day, while today the site claims over 300,000 members.

 

Sylvia Johnson, who spoke with one of the survivors

Sylvia Johnson, who spoke with one of the survivors

 

“You are raping our women and taking over the country.”

This is what Ms. Sylvia Johnson told the world she heard from a survivor of the attacks. This statement by Dylann Roof made during his killing spree is loaded with white nationalist paranoia. It is a claim to victimhood and innocence, even in the act of perpetrating a massacre. The statement frames the twin concerns of the contemporary white nationalist movement succinctly, uniting sex and space, morality and politics, the home and the nation.

As yet, we do not know if Roof spent time on Stormfront (although I’d be surprised if he did not), but in his recently exposed manifesto he does identify as a white nationalist. He also names the Council of Conservative Citizens specifically as helping to foster his racist views. While Stormfront offers a “big tent” approach to white nationalism, and thus represents a variety of political perspectives, it collectively represents the key tenets of white nationalism. Discussing them sheds light on this violent act and may help us understand it.

So, what are the themes that make up the white nationalist ideology? There are three key themes that appear at Stormfront and in Dylann Roof’s manifesto.

1. White Innocence

By 10:41PM on June 16th a discussion thread had already been created on the site responding to the Charleston massacre, and over the next two days the forum generated over 1,100 posts. Participants on Stormfront were almost immediately discussing whether or not the perpetrator was one of them. Just after 11:00PM, user WhiteNationhood wrote, “there’s been some dude over at /pol/ who has posted about scenarios where you could shoot up a black church and make an escape. I always assumed it was a (tasteless) copy pasta [sic] but with this I’m worried it might be him.” After Roof’s rape statement and photos with apartheid badges were circulated Thursday morning, Darling Blade posted, “Dare I ask the question? Was he on here?”

While a few Stormfront members made statements either supporting the murders or dismissing them as insignificant, the majority of posters claimed they do not support violence and some even offered condolences to the victim’s families. However the collective ideological response was one of deflection of blame, and a claim to innocence.

 

Robin DiAngelo has written on what she calls white fragility, the idea that whites are institutionally guarded from racial stress and so experience even minor racial stress as deeply troubling. Framing whites as targets of racial violence allows individuals who experience whiteness as fragile to develop a framework where violence is justified. Since the founding of Stormfront moderators have focused on rules that limit threats of violence or illegal activity and people who make such threats are censured or banned. Most participants claim they support white pride and segregation, not violence. Shortly after the shooting MattwhiteAmerica wrote, “White nationalism is about the survival of the white race. WE do not promote violence..> [sic] Certainly, we do support separation, but not violence. This piece of human filth is condemnable. I hope all guest [sic] can understand this and join us in our journey to preserve our race.” This is a popular opinion on the site, however the logical response to their ideological position is to engage in violence against people of color and Jews, although this violence is seen as self-defense.

Roof certainly came to this conclusion, writing: “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.” After encountering the barrage of selectively curated crime stories on these sites that portray whites as always innocent victims, many participants come to the conclusion that they also must join the race war by enacting violence.

2. Whiteness is about gender and the family, and it is good

The foundational assumption and understanding of white nationalism is that whiteness is morally good and whites are superior. Much scholarly work on the white nationalist movement has shown that the white nationalist movement is primarily a movement designed to defend white masculinity and white femininity, to defend the always already heterosexual white family as the source of all things good.

If you want the deep dive on the research on this, check the following:  Daniels, White Lies (Routledge, 1997) Daniels, Cyber Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009); Ferber, White Man Falling (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998) and Statzel, R. S. (2006). “The Apartheid Conscience: Gender, Race, and Re-Imagining the White Nation in Cyberspace.” Ethnic Studies Review 29(2): 20-45.

 

This understanding of the white family and white (hetero)sexuality as inherently moral allows for a justification of white violence, as white violence is framed as a defense of the good. Roof’s claim that he is defending white women from the threat of black rape is shaped by this ideology of white morality, so that even in the act of murdering innocent people—primarily black women—his narrative implies his actions are defensible.

The morning after the massacre, Stormfront member Freedom lover discussed Roof’s statement that the murders were a defense of white women, writing: Dare I say it, if this is true and this is the real reason, then it’s karma being visited on the negro race. Someone was going to react sooner or later. If they thought we would accept being slaughtered like lambs, this guy has answered them in no uncertain terms.” Freedom lover continues, “This will just happen more and more often as the embattled white race are forced into a corner. We need people to stand up and instead of condemning this guy’s actions, they should condemn the vile brutes who made this possible, the liberal marxists who now run white countries. These are our real enemies. ”

This history of whiteness is a history of racial terror, which bell hooks so clearly discusses (bell hooks, “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination.” Cultural Studies. 1992, Eds. Lawrence Grossberg et al. London: Routledge: 338-342) but white racial terror has consistently been justified as a defense of white femininity. In this framing, an imagined hyper-sexual black terror circulated as the inverse of a purported white innocence.

 

3. Whites are under attack.

The savvy use of new media has allowed white nationalists to circulate their ideology that whites are already under attack, that a race war is already underway and most whites are oblivious of this to their own peril. In his manifesto Roof credits his racial radicalization to the news surrounding Trayvon Martin’s murder, writing that the media response to Martin’s murder, “prompted me to type in the words ‘black on White crime’ into Google, and I have never been the same since that day.’’

Circulating the idea that there is an epidemic of black on white crime is perhaps the most popular theme on Stormfront, and the two main forums in the popular Newslinks section are the “Ethnic Crime Report” and the “Jewish Crime Report.” For over a decade these forums have chronicled hundreds of purported crimes committed by people of color against whites. The Council on Conservative Citizens hosts a similar site, with the title, “Our black on white murder study has shocked even us,” replete with photos and a numerical tally of white victims. As on Stormfront, dozens of photos of smiling white faces alongside mug shots of primarily African Americans and vivid descriptions of murder and rape provide visual and narrative proof that whites are the victims of racial violence.

The tagline for Stormfront is, “We are the voice of the new, embattled White minority!” Circulating the false idea that whites are an embattled minority already under attack by racial others inverts the history of institutionalized white supremacy to portray whites as victims of history. This false portrayal allows white nationalists to frame anti-racist efforts as part of a conspiracy to destroy the white race, and leads at least some to feel compelled to violence to protect whites.

The anti-racist challenge

In this time of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, with so much attention being paid to the dehumanizing racism of police brutality, the Charleston massacre reminds us to remain concerned about the threat of organized racism. The recent Southern Poverty Law Center’s report on the link between Stormfront and nearly 100 murders provides a broader context for concern about the online white nationalist movement. For people concerned with racial justice, we must be aware of ongoing threats the racist right poses. The white nationalist movement has proven adept at utilizing online venues to pursue their goals and engage in pedagogical projects, with devastating effects for many. Anti-racists are now challenged to also engage in savvy new media interventions to work to challenge this threat.

Any strategy for countering the effects of the organized white nationalist movement is complex, and should not involve posting anti-racist challenges to these sites. Many white nationalist actually enjoy responding to “antis,” the name given to everyone who challenges white nationalist ideas, and responding to these posts can actually serve to solidify white nationalist views. The challenge to anti-racists is how to also utilize the power of new media to both challenge white nationalist logic, and to provide a different lens for disaffected whites to interpret their malaise within.

~ Sophie Bjork-James is an anthropologist and a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University. She is an expert in conservative and white supremacist social movements in the US and has monitored the largest white nationalist website, Stormfront.org, since 2004. Bjork-James has published her findings in “The Apartheid Conscience: What the white nationalist movement can teach us about the reproduction of white supremacy in America” and the chapter titled “Cybersupremacy: The new face and form of white supremacist activism” in Tactics in Hard Times: Practices and Spaces of New Media.

Understanding the Charleston Shooting from a Sociological Perspective

The shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday has shaken the country, leaving many reflecting on the state of race relations in the United States.

Nine people, including Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and a South Carolina state senator, were shot to death by accused gunman Dylann Storm Roof at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Authorities have called the shooting a hate crime.

But how does one explain such a crime from a scientific perspective? What could lead someone to commit a racially motivated hate crime? What is racism — and how can we as a society overcome it?

HuffPost Science posed those questions and others on Thursday to Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, an associate professor of sociology at The City College of New York (CUNY) and author of the book Inequality in the Promised Land.

Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy

Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy

I would define racism as a system of social advantages and disadvantages doled out based upon group membership, particularly what we have socially defined as races. Among sociologists, we also talk about a newer form of racism known as “colorblind racism” (Eduardo Bonilla-Silva pioneered this work) that emerged after the 1960s, where the outward expression of racial animus and explicit discriminatory laws have been silenced or removed, but unfair racial advantages or disadvantages are still doled out, despite few people admitting to being devout racists.

From my framework, it is possible for someone to be working in service of racism by endorsing white supremacist ideologies. For example, Dylann Roof in South Carolina opened fire in Mother Emanuel Church and subscribed to beliefs about the superiority of whites and the “natural” order of things. Alternatively, someone who is black can also endorse negative beliefs about their racial siblings despite being a member of that group. A common example of this would be a police officer who is black but utilizes racial profiling in her or his everyday police work.

How would you then describe the ways in which our society is set up to perpetuate racism?

Our society is ripe with messages about the meaning and limits of race. In contemporary America, the immigration debate is often framed around Latinos from Central America, when in fact immigrants come from a wide range of locations and vary greatly by hue. In domestic policy, issues of welfare are often framed [with] African-Americans … assumed to be the beneficiaries of social support, when in reality far more whites receive federal and state support for poverty alleviation. In the area of international violence, terrorism has become nearly exclusively associated with Muslims, both in the Middle East and here in the states.

All of these media frames and our often unquestioned endorsement of them perpetuate racism. They lead people to think the observed differences they see are naturally occurring. Because of these frames, people can believe in the intellectual inferiority and superiority of differing groups, in the athletic abilities of another and in the artistic capacities of another. Rarely are these things questioned. An example I often use is that if tomorrow the Educational Testing Service came out with results that said white Americans outperformed all other ethnic groups, it would not result in an ounce of attention or scrutiny. However, if tomorrow the ETS presented results that said African-Americans outperformed all other ethnic groups in math and reading, there would be considerable uproar, because many of us have been taught the shape of racial inequality and will fight to maintain it.

Do you think economic factors perpetuate racial inequality?

Economics and race have always been tied. It’s hard to understand racism without a fundamental understanding of how economics play into the inequalities of our lives. Contemporary wealth inequality is a perfect example. Demos recently published a report showing the average white family has $111,146 in wealth holdings, while the average black family had $7,113 and the average Latino family $8,348. These disparities are huge! They are not simply the function of some groups working harder than others — instead, they result from differences in the opportunity to accumulate wealth. The history of unequal home loans, access to higher education, as well as wage gaps, have allowed whites to gain advantages at the expense of other racial groups. However, contemporary racism often asks us to ignore the role of the past on the present, which turns a blind eye to the hands of inequality in the past and present.

In that case, do you think America is still suffering from slavery, and how so?

America is not a country that has forgotten about slavery — after all, you can stay at bed-and-breakfasts on “plantations,” visit museums that discuss the wonder of the cotton gin and even attend Civil War re-enactments. However, America is a country that has failed to fully reckon with slavery. The unequal racial worlds that we live in today are tied back to the critical “peculiar institution” of slavery. The wealth accumulated on the backs of African people, the laws erected to separate races, and the resulting social ethos and material inequalities remain unrattled.

Last year, when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, he was pointing to unequal practices that occurred since the end of slavery because he knew America would not deal with [its history of] slavery. While his piece was widely celebrated, people are scared to confront the Jim Crow South and the industrial North, so slavery remains unaddressed. Today, Americans are still scared to confront why they have accumulated [wealth] while others haven’t, and if those differences in accumulation are tied to race. Instead many buy into the belief in meritocracy and desire their gain to be based on what they’ve accomplished. Unfortunately, our national history and present show that meritocracy was never the system that governed reward — here or abroad.

Is Southern culture perpetuating unequal practices or such thinking? For instance, the accused shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, in Charleston hadConfederate license plates on his car, and the Confederate flag is sometimes used as a symbol of post-Civil War white supremacy.

Southern culture in particular and American culture in general often casually perpetuate racism in the present, often by recrafting narratives of the past. The Confederate flag, which flies over South Carolina, was not a long-lived historical symbol — it was the symbol of a rebel force against the United States. The “heritage not hate” trope conveniently skips over the central issues of the Civil War, the position of black people who labored in the antebellum South, as well as the costs that the war had on the nation. Symbols like the Confederate flag are common among hate groups, but also are part of the state’s image. The history of those symbols, along with the large number of schools and statues named for Confederate soldiers and even [Ku Klux] Klan members, create a hostile environment for those who understand the history of race in the nation, and those whose ancestors were painfully forced to labor under those flags during and after the end of slavery, and who had their lives terrorized by groups like the KKK.

dylann storm roof

Dylann Storm Roof is seen in his booking photo after he was apprehended as the main suspect in the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that killed nine people on June 18, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina. 

 

Were you surprised by Roof’s age of 21? Why do you think a young white man from a young generation could be motivated to commit a racially motivated hate crime?

I was not surprised by Roof’s age. Outspokenness of white supremacists may be on the decline, but white supremacist ideology exists in a range of ages. Hate groups often have events where children are socialized into racial hate. As well, the Internet has democratized access to white supremacist information. If I am a white high-schooler who feels he has been mistreated while racial minorities have been favored, I’m only a couple of clicks away from a myriad of sites and message boards where I’ll find kinship with folks who are in legion of racial hatred or racial nationalism.

If the shooting in Charleston hadn’t happened on the heels of many other high-profile race-related incidents — from Ferguson to Walter Scott — do you think the general public would have reacted in the same way, why or why not?

I think the shooting’s timing was significant in that we are seeing a greater national concern about “Black Lives Matter.” The visibility of police violence, particularly due to technology, has meant the American public is now more aware of the dangers that black people face on a daily basis. With that being said, a young man shooting into a church on a Wednesday night should raise ire and action. In the past, we’ve had church burnings, bombing and a host of other moments that make the nation pause and reflect on how far we have come in terms of race relations and how far from healed and whole we are.

Indeed, the shooting in Charleston eerily parallels the racially motivated 1963 Birmingham church bombing, in which four young girls were killed. Can you explain the long history of violent attacks on black churches and racism?

Understanding racism as a system means we must understand the ideologies associated with racism. In the contemporary U.S., colorblind racism demands people not outwardly display their hatred — instead those beliefs lie just beneath the surface. When the Civil Rights Acts were passed, they did not magically change the hearts or minds of racists. Instead, they made it unpopular to express such beliefs publicly and made certain activities illegal.

Today, the tensions that exist around race are rarely new. They’re composed of xenophobia, a belief in the natural order of things and impending threats. Thus, in 1963 in Birmingham, we see a church attacked as black people fight to have the same rights as all Americans and in 2015, we see a church attacked because, [as Roof allegedly said,] “You are taking over the country.” The fear of usurpation of power is central.

How can we overcome racism?

To overcome slavery and end racism we first have to reckon with their effects. Not simply pay lip service but look deeply at the wounds and unequal worlds created. This is not simply about a class divide. It has been, and still is, about the fictions around race that were created — the belief that black is inferior, that white is superior and that all others must earn their space in the American hierarchy is dangerous and must be dismantled. The path to overcoming can only happen once we go through it and make sure that people are not only held accountable in rhetoric, but also deeds. From lending institutions to learning institutions, racism continues to structurally and socially divide. The true solution to such a gargantuan task is to dismantle the social world as we know it. Importantly, that does not mean the end of this planet, it simply means the end of an unjustly created, defined and refined world. Until we can see that as a possibility, racism and slavery will continue to shape our daily lives.

 

~ This interview was conducted by Jacqueline Howard for The Huffington Post Science, where it originally appeared.

Of Rachel Dolezal and Other Confused White People

Like Wendy Moore, as a white antiracist scholar and mother of biracial (African American/white) children who has spent the majority of her life in intimate relations with people of color, I have been asked a lot lately to give my two cents on Rachel Dolezal. And also like Moore, I initially hesitated to speak, because it seemed so many excellent points had already been made, especially by Jessie’s insightful post: that Dolezal’s experience cannot be neatly equated to being transgender; that being black is not a costume one cannot take on and off at will without serious social and political ramifications (the majority of which the masqueraders seem to obfuscate, deny or not even consider); and that any well-intentioned antiracist efforts Dolezal may have attempted are surely cancelled out by her dishonest cooptation of resources that otherwise would have gone to people of color.

Yet we whites are often fond of playing the good white, bad white game: Bad Kramer from Seinfeld , bad Paula Deen—it would seem we may hold up the “bad white” examples to make our own selves feel better. I may put my foot in my mouth sometimes when it comes to race, but at least I don’t do it to such public and blatant proportions, so that must make me not racist—or so the confused logic goes. At least I’m not Dylann Storm Roof, who committed the brutal anti-black hate crime of shooting 9 people in a Charleston, SC church—although by confused white logic, we may not even be sure if we can put him in the good white or bad white column, since, after all, amidst all the racist propaganda he collected, he also “had black friends.”

Not unlike the white students in my Race classes who eventually reach their oversaturation point in exposure to white racism, stating exasperatedly, “why does everything have to be about race?” (um, because that’s the title of the course? Why does everything have to be about chemistry in your chemistry class?) it is clear that much of white America can only take so much of the media attention on police shootings of unarmed African Americans. It’s harder to play the good white, bad white game with such stories of institutional systemic racism, for several reasons. There’s often not a single/lone culprit. Moreover, as in the case of Baltimore, some of the officers weren’t even white—and boy, do whites get really confused then (because the concepts of internalized and institutional racism don’t typically come up in the good cop/bad cop discussions). And more to the point, we are often told that officers shot because they “felt threatened.” Now all bets are off for the good white, bad white game. The object of the game is to absolve whites of their guilty consciences by focusing on white racists who do “crazy” things that average whites convince themselves they would never do—and what white person hasn’t “felt threatened” by someone who is African American? Given what research tells us about the amount of antiblack attitudes held by a majority of white Americans, including assuming blacks are prone to crime, it’s doubtful that most whites are able to draw such a clear dividing line in their minds between themselves and a police officer who “felt threatened” by a black man.

So what better relief from this cognitive dissonance than to shift the mass media discussion away from such institutional racism and toward a white woman—Rachel Dolezal—who has nowhere near the power of the racial state that will soon likely acquit yet another (and many other) officers murdering unarmed African Americans for so-called “justified” reasons? In the game of good white, bad white, most whites can tell themselves, at least I haven’t lied about my race and pretended I was black. The Dolezal story thus presents a more palatable racism news feed for many whites who may be able to see themselves in the shoes of a “threatened” police officer but can’t ever imagine themselves masquerading as black.

It’s so much easier to put a demonizing face on a single white woman (Rachel Dolezal) who deceitfully stole an opportunity from potentially other equally or better qualified African Americans than it is to do a news story on the scores of whites who everyday take opportunities from equally or more qualified people of color through the “opportunity hoarding” that Nancy Ditomaso describes in her book about mostly all-white job referral networks. So Rachel Dolezal gets to be the scapegoat for confused whites, while the rest of us are deluded into thinking our white privilege and racism is normal and not worthy of public outrage, by comparison.

In Malcolm X’s autobiography, he argues it is no accident that the history books paint John Brown (a white man executed for his role in an 1859 slave rebellion) as a “nut case.” Malcolm X asserts it’s quite intentional that the white power structure doesn’t want the masses of whites to think it’s normal to challenge their own white privilege. Although I do not believe the heroic acts of Brown and the cowardice of Dolezal can at all be equated, I argue in my book Whites Confront Racism (2001), as others have before me, that the historical silence about white involvement in antiracist struggle can leave whites confused about where they fit in. Perhaps in Dolezal’s small town upbringing, and subsequent experience of racial politicization in the context of an HBCU campus, left her with a false dichotomy: be white and part of the problem, or be black and be part of the solution.

Newly declared antiracist whites can tend to distance themselves from their own communities and position themselves as “down with the black people” instead, as a way of assuaging their white guilt. Yet people of color will consistently tell white antiracists that the very thing they most need is for whites to go back into their own communities and talk to other white people about racism. We have a unique position from which to do this, in ways that people of color cannot, since whites so often see them as self-interested or “playing the race card” when they speak the truth about racism. In what I call privileged polemics, we are more likely to be believed by fellow whites when we say, yes, racism really happens. Sad, but true. So in choosing to cut herself off from her white family and ally herself in less-than-forthcoming ways with people of color, perhaps Dolezal was one of those confused white antiracists that did not realize there was a place for her in the movement just the way she is. Dolezal’s actions are certainly not congruent with those of principled antiracists. But fully all of the more respected antiracists will tell you that we white antiracists probably fumble around, fail, and put our foot in our mouths more than we succeed. We are constantly learning, and constantly making mistakes—sloughing off a lifetime of racist conditioning, one baby step at a time. So like Moore, although I cannot personally relate to the path Dolezal has chosen, I’ll let those without mistakes on their track record hurl their stones at her. I can only pray that she (and more importantly many more others) eventually become(s) less confused about what racism is, and why fighting widespread white privilege and mass incarceration (among many other forms of systemic racism) is so much more worth our time and attention than one white woman’s confusion.

Eileen O’Brien is a leading researcher on white anti-racists and Associate Professor of Sociology and Assistant Chair, Social Sciences at Saint Leo University (Virginia Campus)

Juneteenth and the Struggle Behind It

As with church going, sartorial display is connected to resistance and celebrations of the African American holiday Juneteenth. “By putting on their very best clothes, the black people were signaling they were free,” historian Jackie Jones relates. “It enraged white people. They hated to see black people dressed up because it turned their world upside down.”

Emancipation Day, Austin, Texas, 1900 (from Wikipedia)

 

Today is the 150th anniversary of the original  Juneteenth, a celebration marking the end of slavery. What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration that people celebrate in a variety of ways. NPR’s Code Switch has been collecting stories of how people celebrate at the hashtag #WouldntBeJuneteenthWithout, but I there is a pall over the usual celebratory mood of this Juneteenth by recent events in Charleston.

Indeed, after a 21-year-old white gunman opened fire on a bible study group at the historic predominantly black Emanuel AME Church leaving nine dead, the celebration of Juneteenth and the struggle behind it, take on a renewed sense of urgency and poignancy.

The Struggle to Make Juneteenth a State Holiday

Juneteenth hasn’t always been recognized as a holiday, and in the family I came from it was often scoffed at (lots of derision about the name of the holiday).  So the fact that Juneteenth is now an official state holiday in Texas and many other communities across the US, is significant and is only possible because of a political struggle waged by one Houston Democratic legislator, (former) state representative Al Edwards.  It seems impossible now to mention a black, Democratic state representative and not call to mind, Rep. Clementa Pinckney, gunned down while leading that Wednesday night service in Charleston.

Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards

Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards

Edwards was born in Houston in 1937, the sixth of sixteen children, and was first elected as a state representative in 1978 from Houston’s District 146, the area known as Alief. A year later, in 1979, Edwards authored and sponsored House Bill 1016, making June 19th (“Juneteenth”) a paid state holiday in Texas.

Everyone, it seemed, opposed the idea. In a recent interview about this bill, attorney Doug McLeod, a conservative Democratic representative from Galveston at the time said of Edwards, “He really had an uphill battle. He had opposition from the left and the right.” Mostly white conservative Democratic majority viewed the bill as a hard sell to their constituents and many of Edwards’ 14 fellow black legislators saw it as a diversion from securing a holiday for Martin Luther King.

House Bill 1016 appeared to be headed nowhere when Edwards, a Democrat who was new to the legislature, originally filed it. Eventually, he got McLeod to sign on to the bill and Bill Clayton, then speaker of the Texas legislature.

Then-Gov. Bill Clements, a Republican, declined to endorse the Juneteenth bill, but he agreed to sign it if passed. Through a series of negotiations and brokered deals over votes, Rep. Edwards eventually prevailed and got the bill through the legislature.  When the bill passed, white conservative opponents urged the governor not to sign the bill, but Clements kept his word and signed the bill on the Texas State Capitol steps. This prompted other states to follow suit. Now 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way or another.

History and Struggle Behind Juneteenth

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, but people remained enslaved within the state of Texas.

This happened for two reasons.

First, Texas slave owners refused to release the people they were holding as slaves.  They basically just wouldn’t acknowledge that the Emancipation Proclamation or Lee’s surrender had happened or had any bearing on them (cf. “States Rights,”  see also Texas is a Whole Other Country).

Second, slave owners from neighboring states in the south looked on Texas as a haven for slavery, so they poured into Texas with an estimated 125,000-150,000* enslaved people  from surrounding Confederate states (*historians debate the precise number).

In a recent interview, Jackie Jones,a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.”The idea was Texas was so vast that the federal government would never be able to conquer it all. There is this view that if they want to hold onto their slaves, the best thing to do is get out of the South and go to Texas.”

This ended on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston and again declared the end of the Civil War, with General Granger reading aloud a special decree that ordered the freeing of some 200,000 people still in bondage in Texas.

Today, some 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way. This would not have been possible without the vision of Rep. Al Edwards and the struggle to make it a reality.

In times like these, what’s to celebrate?

With the official, legal end of chattel slavery — and the enforcement of that decree in Texas — there was much to celebrate in 1865. It was no longer legal for human beings to be sold on auction blocks as they had been. And, to be clear, the US didn’t just tolerate slavery as an economic system, it expanded and prospered on it.  The overturning of this dehumanizing system was a momentous victory for a multi-racial group of abolitionists who waged a decades long campaign to end slavery.

Reconstruction followed, creating new opportunities for African Americans who owned and profited from their own land and began to participate in local politics.

Most Americans remain confused about the period of Reconstruction, and many still subscribe toA false story of Reconstruction disseminated in popular culture through things like the film Birth of a Nation.  Although historians including Columbia University’s Eric Foner have shown the extraordinary political, economic, and legal gains of Reconstruction, as Gregory P. Downs notes at TPM.

One historian, C. Vann Woodward, has called the period of “the forgotten alternatives.” During the period between 1870 and 1900, there was some racial integration in housing and privately-owned facilities. Black people could travel on public transportation, vote and get elected, get jobs, including on police forces, and enjoy many public facilities.

But. the gains of Reconstruction were short-lived.

This “alternative” approach to race during Reconstruction ended when what Woodward calls the “strange career” of Jim Crow segregation, began — first by whites in the North, and expanded with a vengeance by Southern whites. Within thirty years of emancipation, laws were instituted that stripped African Americans of their rights, making celebrations like Juneteenth a distant memory. A prison-labor paradigm developed. White jail owners profited from the hard labor of their black inmates who were incarcerated for petty crimes like vagrancy, which carried long sentences. White landowners replaced chattel slavery with a deceptive practice called debt peonage, a new form of bondage continued for many blacks for decades. It wasn’t until 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Circular No. 3591 which strengthened the Anti-Peonage Law of 1867, making it a criminal offense.  Roosevelt launched a federal investigation, prosecuted guilty whites and effectively ended peonage in 1942.

 

So, why celebrate Juneteenth if white supremacy re-emerged with such a bloody return thirty short years later? Because celebration, commemoration and community is how we gain strength for the larger struggle.

Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name land co-executive producer of the documentary film by the same name, said this about Juneteenth:

“It’s important not to skip over the first part of true freedom. Public education as we know it today and the first property rights for women were instituted by African-American elected officials.”

Even as there is terrible news out of Charleston, South Carolina by a young white man who was, by all accounts, “enraged” by the freedom of black people, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on other times, other struggles and other victories on this 150th anniversary of Juneteenth.

 

 

 

White Terrorist Takes Nine Black Lives at Historic AME Church in Charleston

Grief: Worshippers embrace following a group prayer across the street from the Emanuel AME Church (Picture: AP Photo/David Goldman)

Multiple news outlets are reporting that  a white male suspect, approximately 21 years old, joined a Bible study service at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina, then stood and began firing a gun. He killed nine people, all of them black, including State Senator and pastor of the church, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney. At this time, the suspect remains at large.

Roberston’s biography of Denmark Vesey (Knopf, 1999)

The Emanuel A.M.E. church, the oldest AME church in the South and home to the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore, Maryland, is rooted in the struggle for black freedom in the US and has a long history of being targeted by white violence. The church is listed as one of the historic sites in Charleston, South Carolina by the National Park Service, which details some of the church’s history on its website. In 1822 the church was investigated for its involvement with a planned slave revolt. Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, organized a major slave uprising in Charleston. Vesey was raised in slavery in the Virgin Islands, and ultimately won his own freedom and then began to organize for others’ to gain their freedom. He organized a slave rebellion, but authorities were informed of the plot before it could take place. During the Vesey controversy, the AME church was burned. Vesey reportedly advanced the date of the insurrection to June 16, a date that many point to as having significance fort his attack. Ultimately, some 300 alleged participants were arrested for their involvement in the slave revolt plot, and 35 including Vesey were executed. If you’re not familiar with this history, I recommend Robertson’s biography of Vesey.
Black churches have a long history of being targets for white terrorist violence. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were killed by members of the local KKK in 1963 is the example with which most people will be familiar, but there are many others.  Bernice King reminded her followers that her grandmother, Dr.King’s mother, was killed in church:

And, these attacks have continued. Throughout the 1990s there were a series of arson attacks against black churches throughout the South for which no one was ever arrested or charged for these crimes.

While the suspect in the shootings in Charleston remains at large, he has been identified by eye-witnesses as a white man and is thus connected to a long history of white terrorism enacted by white men against racialized others in the US. Most recently, David Leonard Zak Cheney-Rice (thanks Kyra!) explained this dynamic in his piece about James L. Boulware, the white man who opened fire on Police Headquarters in Dallas and lived to tell about it.

White domestic terrorists in the US

While Boulware is just the most recent, there is a long string of white men with guns who act out their rage in violent ways. Frequent readers here will know that I’ve been on about the trouble with white women and the way they(we) are implicated in perpetuating systems of white supremacy, but let me be clear: it is white men who are the most deadly threat. Indeed, although the bulk of the mainstream media attention focuses on “Islamic extremists” — and we continue to take off our shoes at airports because of this putative threat — the reality is that most of the terrorist activity occurring in the United States in recent years has come from white men drawn from a combination of radical Christian, white supremacists and far-right militia groups.

Why is it always a white guy and why can’t we connect these dots?

Sociologist Michael Kimmel suggests that it is “aggrieved entitlement that lies underneath the anger of American white men.” Similarly, Joe Feagin has written extensively about the social problems created by white men as a population. Of course, if you’re a woman of color and a professor, saying that America is reluctant to call out white men as a problem on social media could cost your job.

Still, these dots do not get connected. People, for the most part, do not make the connection between Timothy McVeigh – who bombed the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City – and the shooter in Charleston, South Carolina. Part of the reason most (white) people can’t make these connections is the way that this story will get reported in the mainstream media.  My pal Chauncey Devega and I discussed how this is going to play out a little earlier:

 

Even when white men commit the most heinous acts — like killing people at a place of worship — they get treated to a sympathetic narrative and backstory. I promise you when this suspect is identified, we will see multiple mainstream news stories about how “he wasn’t always like this” (complete with baby pictures), testimony from white parents and neighbors about “what a good guy” he always seemed to be, and finally, an “investigative” piece that uncovers the fact that he was posting on Stormfront and asks the burning question: “did the Internet do this to him? Did it lure an otherwise good boy into the dark world of neo-nazis?”

We Need to Talk about White Supremacy

People keep saying that we need to “have a conversation about race” in this country, but what we need to have is a conversation about white supremacy. To be sure, the mass murder at the Emanuel A.M.E. church is an act of white supremacist terrorism. The white man who did this is a terrorist with a political agenda to kill black people. When one segment of the population can easily — and legally — buy and carry deadly weapons and almost never seen as suspect while another segment of the population is always a target of violence, even in a place of worship, that is white supremacy. Yet, for the most part, we have no way to talk about this kind of systemic racism in US culture. When most (white) people hear the term “white supremacy” they think of the people in robes and hoods, not the white men pictured above.

The deaths of nine black people in Charleston, South Carolina who were doing nothing more than attending a Bible study — and were targeted for their blackness — is a stark reminder that there are very real, material ways that all lives do not matter in the same way within a white supremacist context.